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  Home  Local News  Neighborhoods Monday, May 23, 2005

Special classes fight end-of-year boredom
Oldham school tries 'May term'

By Tonia Holbrook
The Courier-Journal

As North Oldham High School senior Tyler Napier peered over yellow crime-scene tape, he didn't expect to see another student face down on the floor in Room 182, covered in what appeared to be blood.

"Oh my God," Tyler said. "There's a person."

Tyler and his classmates signed up to take a weeklong forensics class, but they didn't know how hands-on it would get. The class started with a simulated crime and a plot that included a bludgeoned corpse, a pair of teenage lovers and an alleged statutory rape.

Welcome to CSI: Goshen, one of 18 special classes offered for the first time at North Oldham High to keep juniors and seniors interested in learning during the last two weeks of school.

The project, dubbed "May term," is part of an effort to improve high school education, which is under fire from educators across the nation for failing to prepare students for college. Organizers also hope to improve attendance -- especially among seniors -- during the waning days of classes.

If all goes well, some May term courses, or elements of them, could be offered in regular classes throughout the school year.

As part of May term, some students are watching movies, then comparing Hollywood's depictions of psychological disorders and historical events in the films with what they've learned in class. Others are using the concept of buoyancy to build a cardboard boat sturdy enough to race on a lake. Still another group took a 10-day trip to England and Scotland to study areas of the world that inspired classic writers like William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens and Sir Walter Scott.

One of the most popular choices has been ballroom dancing, which attracted 64 students, most of whom are boys. More than 70 students have designed their own projects -- one student is shadowing a Realtor for a week, while another plans to work in a mechanic shop.

"What's so compelling about the potential of May term is that it turns those last two or three weeks into something of a rigorous, enjoyable and culminating learning experience," said former North Oldham High principal Terry Brooks, who helped create the program and is now executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates.

While Kentucky and Indiana educators interviewed said May term sounds like a good idea, few -- if any -- schools in either state offer such a schedule.

Kentucky Department of Education spokeswoman Lisa Gross said she knows of no other schools with a similar program.

Mark Shoup, a spokesman for the Indiana State Teachers Association in Indianapolis, said the intense focus on meeting state and national academic standards leaves little time for such innovations.

"It's not going to happen" in many Indiana public schools because they face sanctions if their students don't meet state and national performance standards, Shoup said.

Lauren Roberts, a spokeswoman for Jefferson County Public Schools in Kentucky, said she wants to know how a school could fit special classes into an already packed school calendar.

At North Oldham High, nearly all of the school's 325 juniors and seniors are taking May term classes. Administrators gave students the option to remain in their regular classes, especially for those who needed to make up assignments or get remedial help. About five students took the option.

Science teacher Brennon Sapp, who designed much of May term, said North Oldham made room for it by changing its grading periods from four nine-week quarters to four eight-week quarters. That left four weeks. Two of them were reserved for students to take finals, Advanced Placement exams and state and national accountability tests; the other two weeks were for May term.

Juniors and seniors spend the entire school day in May term classes. They could register for up to four courses in the two-week period, depending on whether the class was designed for a half day or full day.

Social studies teacher David Green, who helped design May term, said its genesis was a discussion with juniors last year about where high schools were going wrong. The students pointed out the last few weeks of school, when "senioritis" takes its firmest hold.

Senior Ashley Newbern said she's got a bad case of senioritis, but May term "kind of helps."

"I'm not stressed, and I'm not feeling rebellious or not wanting to do work," she said.

Ashley said May term offered her a chance to try new things, including yoga, aerobics and college-prep cooking -- a class on preparing food in a dorm room.

Brian Sterrett, a junior, and some of his buddies signed up for ballroom dancing. "About five of us guys wanted to take it to see what it was like," he said.

Sue Condict said May term gave her son Joey, a senior, a reason to keep coming to school.

"Why not show up?" Condict said. "It's fun.

"The other alternative is that they're still sitting in that structured classroom environment, when mentally they're excited and distracted and ready to move on."

Michael Kirst, an education professor at Stanford University, said anything that can shake up senior year is worth it.

The goal of senior year should be to help students be ready to succeed in college, not merely to help them get accepted, said Kirst, who researches school-reform efforts.

"It needs to be made more challenging, in terms of getting them (students) into … things they're interested in," he said.

North Oldham High teachers got the idea for May term from colleges that use a similar approach -- Lexington's Transylvania University is one of them.

May term is "very popular" among Transylvania students because they take subjects they're interested in and explore them exclusively for the four-week term, without having to worry about other classes, said spokeswoman Sarah Emmons. Anthropology students go on digs. An international accounting and taxation class studies the equine industry in Ireland. Professors of history and religion take their classes to Turkey and Greece to study the Roman Empire and the life of the Apostle Paul.

"But I've never heard of a high school doing it," Emmons said, adding it seems to be a good idea.

The May term buzz around North Oldham has been so positive, teachers have used it as a motivator. For example, juniors are promised that if their CATS scores come back high this fall, they'll get first dibs on next year's May-term offerings.

Judging from students' reaction, CSI: Goshen didn't disappoint. The class came complete with a fictional autopsy report, surveillance videotape and evidence, including fingerprints, hair and blood spatter.

Students decided how to use the information to solve the case, and sometimes their methods surprised Sapp, who helps teach the class. For example, one team issued an Amber Alert to locate two fictitious juveniles wanted for questioning.

"The interactions, expressions and reactions of my students were so authentic and exciting, I had to step out in the hall as I exploded in laughter," Sapp said.

Senior Mae Marks, who played murder victim "Jill Simms," had to lie motionless while students scanned her for evidence. "I'm lovin' this May term," Mae exclaimed, even if it did mean being dead for most of the day.

Staff writer Dick Kaukas contributed to this story.

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